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New Zealand’s political surprise: the rise of Jacinda Ardern

Posted By on October 20, 2017 @ 13:09

Reformist, not revolutionary: that will be the tone of the three-way Labour-led governing arrangement announced late on 19 August.

Incoming prime minister Jacinda Ardern is 37. For many, she personifies a generational shift, which is also reflected in the makeup of the new parliament: more than a third of MPs are aged 45 or under and a fifth are under 40.

But, unlike the generational shift in 1984 to the baby boomers, who radically reformed New Zealand’s economic, racial and foreign policy and the state sector and fiscal management, Ardern’s government is set to make significant but not radical changes.

Her two governing partners are New Zealand First (a social and economic nationalist party that is evolving towards a more centrist position), which got 7.2% of the vote and will have four ministers in the 20-member cabinet in a formal coalition, and the Green party (6.3% of the vote), which will have three ministers outside the cabinet. The Greens have entered into a confidence-and-supply arrangement that ties them to supporting the government only on matters affecting the portfolios their ministers hold.

Ardern’s rise to the top was breathtaking. She was made deputy leader in March and then leader on 1 August when Labour was averaging 24% in the polls and fearing a wipeout in the 23 September election.

Her first press conference an hour after her elevation to party leader generated what the media called ‘Jacindamania’. The campaign opening attracted a huge crowd, many of whom had to be turned away but stayed for ‘selfies’ when she came out of the hall.

During the campaign she was mobbed by younger people, large numbers of whom enrolled to vote very late, pushing up Labour’s vote from 35.8% on election night to 36.9% in the final count.

But Ardern also has intelligence, strength of character and substance. She appealed to many older people who have long looked for an alternative to the market-led—neoliberal—policies that have dominated for 30 years.

Thus she is an unusual combination of two northern hemisphere phenomena: the Justin Trudeau/Emmanuel Macron fresh-face appeal, and the Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn promise of a restored version of the social democratic welfare state.

Labour’s support parties also want economic and social policy change.

The Greens made eradicating poverty one of their three policy focuses. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters split from the National party in 1993 to form his party in opposition to National’s neoliberal economics. Announcing his decision to side with Labour this time, he focused on the many people ‘who feel capitalism is not their friend but their foe’ and said, ‘They are not wrong … Capitalism must regain its … human face.’ That pushed him from the ‘modified status quo’ offered by National, which has ruled since 2008, to ‘change’ with Labour. Though National, with 44.4% of the vote, was the biggest party in the parliament, Peters pointed to the 50.4% who voted for the three parties in the new government as demonstrating that ‘people did want change’.

But what change?

Policy detail won’t be made public until early next week, Ardern said, and ministerial portfolios later in the week.

But she did say that her ‘100 days’ commitment of 10 September would be carried out. That includes a fee-free first year for students, a ‘healthy rental homes’ law, a ban on foreigners buying existing residential properties, more assistance for families and a poverty reduction target, a lift in the minimum wage from NZ$15.75 to NZ$16.50 (Peters had promised NZ$20) and pro-worker workplace legislation, a ministerial working party on mental health, and a ‘clean waterways summit’ to combat pollution by intensified farming.

Ardern intends to take early action to set up a tax working group to examine, among other things, taxes on wealth, capital gains and pollution, the outcome of which would be put to the 2020 election. The Greens back substantial change. New Zealand First is wary.

Ardern also committed to much stronger action on climate change: a net-zero carbon emissions goal and an independent climate commission, which has the support of all three parties. At her campaign opening, Ardern called climate change her generation’s ‘nuclear moment’, referring to the 1980s Labour government’s anti-nuclear legislation which got New Zealand kicked out of ANZUS.

Another ‘nuclear moment’ might arise out Labour’s stance on foreign purchases of houses, which it has insisted must be in the revised free trade agreement (TPP-11) but almost certainly can’t be. Will she sign up on 10 November when leaders must agree or not to TPP-11? Her two partners are anti–free trade.

Not signing up would send a negative signal to New Zealand’s current and prospective trade partners at a time when the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement process is under strain. Ardern might therefore find a formula of words that allows her to sign up and then to join with National to get enabling legislation through.

Apart from that, foreign policy won’t change much. Labour and the Greens will want more emphasis on human rights, a slightly less tight relationship with the United States, and mandates from the United Nations for any military engagement offshore, which would mean no extension of the troop training in Iraq. New Zealand First will push for more military expenditure but that probably won’t get far with Labour, which in March refused to endorse the outgoing government’s planned purchases.

Ardern emphasised that she’ll go to Australia as soon as practicable. She has brushed off Julie Bishop’s statement that she would find it difficult to build trust with a Labour government because of the party’s inquiry about Barnaby Joyce’s New Zealand citizenship. Ardern doesn’t hold grudges and is, she said repeatedly during the campaign, ‘relentlessly positive’. Which worked a treat for her.



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